West: Calgary’s 3M Line – Offensive Zone Starts and the Calder Trophy

by Kevin Wickersham on March 13, 2017
  • The Wild West
  • West: Calgary’s 3M Line – Offensive Zone Starts and the Calder Trophy

Calgary’s 3M Line – Offensive Zone Starts and the Calder Trophy. What's making the NHL's hottest team tick right now            


Just how good has Calgary’s top line been? Usually, a high offensive zone start (OZ%) percentage indicates a player that excels on offense and is used primarily in that capacity, while low offensive zone start percentages are for players that are on the ice during faceoffs held predominantly outside their zone, fulfilling a more defensive role. 


But what if your defensive and neutral zone start workhorses are also your top scorers? There are some anomalies where this happens – Minnesota’s Mikko Koivu (34.6 OZ%) with 32 assists and 50 points (second and third on the team respectively) and Anaheim's Ryan Kesler (33.5 OZ%) second on the Ducks in goals (19) and assists (28). Calgary's 3M line – Mikael Backlund, Matt Tkachuk, and Michael Frolik take this to another level, leading the NHL’s hottest club in scoring while also topping the Flames in defensive zone starts. 


Let's consider the gravity of this. 


Often players who have high OZ percentages are considered “sheltered” as other teammates take the bulk of defensive and neutral zone starts allowing top scorers to face off mostly near the net at which they are shooting. Chicago, St. Louis, and Nashville employ this tactic liberally. Chicago in particular excels at this with Artemi Panarin (NHL-leader at 82.5 OZ%), Artem Anisimov (65.9 OZ%), and Patrick Kane (65.8 OZ%) put in sheltered positions that lend to high scoring totals, while low-scoring defensive specialists such as Marcus Kruger (29.2 OZ%) man higher-risk face-offs more near the Blackhawk net.


St. Louis follows a similar mold with top scorer Vladimir Tarasenko (65.7 OZ%) benefiting from the infrequent offensive zone starts of Kyle Brodziak (23.8 OZ%), Scottie Upshall (26.7 OZ%), and Ryan Reaves (29.2 OZ%). Likewise, Nashville’s unheralded Austin Watson (28.5 OZ% and a plus-13 rating) performs the same function, freeing up the more offensively-oriented Filip Forsberg (57.5 OZ%).

Calgary also shelters some key Flames in this way. Johnny Gaudreau (64.7 OZ%) and Sean Monahan (61.6 OZ%) are the team’s top two in offensive zone starts percentage and thriving on the club’s second line. Yet their first line, and second power play unit, of Backlund, Tkachuk, and Frolik collectively leads the team in points and their offensive zone start percentages are ridiculously low. Tkachuk at 34.3 OZ% has a comparable percentage to those of Kesler and Koivu. The remarkably versatile Backlund (35.4 OZ%), in the conversation for the Selke Trophy, and Frolik (37.3 OZ%) are also very low relative to their scoring numbers. Looking at the stats for all three:



























Individually, each M is enjoying a career high in points-per-game average and all also are approaching career-best scoring totals. While there are many factors that contribute to this, the infusion of Tkachuk on the line in late October, the rookie with a veteran’s two-way game, may have been utmost. Looking at Backlund’s and Frolik’s previous campaigns’ OZ% numbers bolsters the value of Tkachuk’s achievements as both currently have career lows.

As a line, the 3M has totaled 65 even-strength points over the course of the season, nearly three times that of the Flames’ next highest scoring line of Gaudreau, Monahan, and Ferland which has 24 points. Collectively, counting for their play on all lines they have manned this season, the three have a highly respectable 133 points. Their 24 points on the power play is also tied for the best among forward units on the squad.

With career highs in scoring and career lows in offensive zone start percentage across their first line, the Flames truly have something special on the ice that doesn’t enjoy the so-called shelter that many other top scorers do. They provide it. 

Although Tkachuk stands fifth in scoring among rookies behind Laine (32 G, 27 A, 54.7 OZ%) Matthews (31 G, 24 A, 62.9 OZ%), Marner (17 G, 37 A, 58.6 OZ%), and Nylander (18 G, 30 A, 52.8 OZ%) his overall game should provoke Calder Trophy discussion. When a rookie that plays nothing like a rookie helps create such impressive, top-line, two-way levels of production he deserves serious consideration as the top NHL rookie, and perhaps his linemate does too for the Selke Trophy.  


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